‘Lifesaving’ sexual assault support centres in crisis

A national sexual violence support center is “in crisis” without enough counselors to manage the record number of sexual assault survivors seeking lifesaving support.

Over the past year, Full Stop Australia has experienced a 27 increase in service demand without additional funding or counselors.

A third of the calls to the NSW Sexual Violence Helpline, run by the center, are left unanswered.

CEO of Full Stop, Hayley Foster, said it was devastating to know people were reaching out for help during the most traumatic experience and not getting through to a counselor.

Camera IconHayley Foster is the CEO of Full Stop Australia, a sexual violence crisis center in NSW that has experienced a sharp increase in demand for their services. Credit: News Corp Australia

“For someone to take that step of reaching out for support – it’s enormous and so courageous – for them to get a voicemail when they’ve done that, it keeps us up at night,” she said.

“It’s inexcusable.”

Three weeks before the state budget, Full Stop calls on the NSW government to increase funding for overstretched sexual assault services.

“We are just in crisis trying to pick up the phone and support people,” she said.

“It’s as though sexual assault centers – and, by default, sexual assault survivors – are being forgotten and not being prioritized.”

Sexual assault survivors across NSW are forced to wait more than a year to access specialist counseling, and many rely upon the 24-hour helpline for assistance.

sexual assault

“Live-saving” support

One such person is Ranjeeta, a sexual assault survivor who credits the NSW Sexual Violence Helpline with saving her life.

After being assaulted, Ranjeeta realized she “was struggling really hard” and needed specialist support. She described a grueling process to access what should be readily available.

“It took me over half a year to get in touch with a sexual assault service through the GP,” she said.

Camera IconRanjeeta is a survivor of sexual assault who struggled to access trauma services. Credit: News Corp Australia

“After the first appointment, I was told that the waitlist was over a year to get an appointment with a trauma counselor.”

The scarcity of counselors, lack of funding, and the influx of sexual assault survivors meant all the services Ranjeeta tried to access could not accommodate her.

She said waiting so long, only to find out support still wouldn’t be available, was crushing.

“I remember feeling so hopeless I could barely get home that day. I remember thinking, ‘now what do I do?’” she said.

The young woman said she wouldn’t have survived the trauma without access to the “lifesaving” 24/7 NSW Sexual Violence Helpline.

“I could say that Full Stop saved my life. Because of the system’s failings, that was my only resort to get any professional help in trauma support,” she said.

“Especially at a time when I’m barely holding on.”

After struggling for so long to access specialist counseling, Ranjeeta is now seeing a private therapist. Although she’s relieved to have the support, she said she sometimes had to decide between food and therapy.

Camera IconRanjeeta bravely battled to access sexual assault crisis services for over a year after her assault. Credit: News Corp Australia

And even with a regular trauma counselor, Ranjeeta said there were times when she needed the support of the 24-hour helpline.

Heartbreakingly, she admitted she felt she shouldn’t call because she knew the service was so overstretched.

“One of the hardest things with calling Full Stop is feeling guilty because I know the insufficiency there is with support to take the phone call,” she said.

“At the very least, the government should be funding the helpline if they’re not going to fix the underlying issues.”

More strain on the system

The number of survivors missing out on essential trauma counseling services is set to soar with the introduction of affirmative consent laws in NSW.

Full Stop Australia helped to shape the “critical changes” the service has been demanding for decades, but Ms. Foster said sexual assault crisis services were neglected in the implementation.

“We’ve been raising concerns about the underfunding even before that, and we had raised concerns that with this new law change and this campaign, we were going to expect a much bigger increase in calls to our helpline,” she said.

Camera IconAttorney-General Mark Speakman and Survivor advocate and Director of Rape & Sexual Assault Research Saxon Mullins announced the affirmative consent laws. Gaye Gerard Credit: News Corp Australia

The CEO noted a lot of “hand on heart” speeches about supporting sexual violence survivors but no definitive change to ensure trauma services were there to facilitate that support.

“It’s frustrating to have more platitudes thrown at us and no real action that’s going to save lives,” Ms. Foster said.

However, a spokesman for the NSW Government denied the government was paying lip service to supporting survivors of sexual violence.

“Sexual assault is a serious and devastating crime, which is why the NSW Government is investing significantly in this area,” they said.

The spokesman noted Full Stop received more than $1.54 million in funding last year for the NSW Sexual Violence Helpline. The NSW government also increased funding by approximately 2.5 percent over the past 30 years.

However, despite soaring demand, Ms. Foster said the service hadn’t been given a significant funding boost in the past ten years.

Camera IconSigns at a Justice4Women rally show the demand for services for survivors. Credit: News Corp Australia, Emma Brasier

“We’ve asked – just to staff the phone line so we can pick up the phone – for just over a million dollars for the entire state,” she said.

“We’re talking about one in five women, and one in 20 men are impacted by sexual violence. We’re dealing with thousands and thousands of calls.”

“Political football”

The additional funding would pay for 25 counseling shifts for the 24-hour helpline so calls from survivors wouldn’t go unanswered.

Yet the trauma service has been unable to obtain assurances from the NSW Government. According to a Full Stop employee, part of the issue is that the NSW departments play “political football” with the crisis centers because they don’t fall neatly into a single portfolio.

With the record number of sexual assault victims seeking support, NSW sexual violence crisis centers are calling for recognition.

“Sexual violence services are not a luxury but an essential service,” Ms. Foster said.

Bella E. McMahon
I am a freelance writer who started blogging in college. I am fascinated by human nature, politics, culture, technology, and pop culture. In addition to my writing, I enjoy exploring new places, trying out new things, and engaging in conversations with new people. Some of my favorite hobbies are reading, playing music, making crafts, writing, traveling, and spending time with my family.